The Church weeps

I finally saw the movie “Spotlight.” Reviewers have acclaimed this dramatization of The Boston Globe’s exposé of clerical sexual abuse and institutional cover up in the Boston Archdiocese in 2002. Many consider it one of the best films of the year.

It is also really, really tough to watch.

The film takes its name from a team of investigative reporters working for The Boston Globe who exposed a persistent pattern of institutional behavior on the part of the Church whenever a priest was accused of molesting a youth: sealed court documents, private settlements and transfers from one parish to another of the offending clergy.

The movie makes a point of indicting an entire culture of silence — not just the Church officials, judges, lawyers and police, but also parishioners and even the Globe itself.

In “Spotlight,” the victims play a key role, but the movie does not exploit them with graphic scenes or flashbacks. Rather, it lets the viewer see the impact of the abuse on their present lives. It is heart-rending and true, and provides the necessary context for all that happens, a context we can only wish the many decision-makers at the time had paid attention to.

Of course, those of us who have lived through the unfolding abuse disaster may wish that other facets of the story had been told.

The movie hints at the complicity of the legal profession, but it does not look closely at the advice that chanceries were receiving to stonewall and seal and suppress. Nor does it look at the clinics and the psychiatrists that counseled returning the priests to service after they had been “cured.” And, of course, it asks no questions about the larger epidemic of child abuse in our country.

The ending of the film is a list of all the dioceses in this country, and dioceses around the world, where abuse cases have occurred.

This ending fits with the larger narrative of the movie that the Church was systematically covering up these scandals. I wish it had shown how much the Church has paid as a result of the scandals and what steps it has taken to make abuse and its cover-up more difficult. The reforms instituted in 2002 and implemented throughout the U.S. Church are historic in their breadth and depth: from zero tolerance for accused abusers to safe environment training for children and background checks for anyone working with children.

The Church has paid a high price for its sins. It will be haunted by the fallout from the abuse crisis for a generation. But this is not a bad thing. Boston Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley put it bluntly:

“The media helped make our Church safer for children by raising up the issue of clergy sexual abuse and forcing us to deal with it.” The scandal, of course, is that we needed an outside institution to “force us to deal with it.”

For me, the suffering caused the victims also afflicts those who love the Church and strive to serve it faithfully.

I remember a bishop who had to address the legacy of abuse he inherited in his diocese. As he told me of meeting with the victims and hearing their stories, he wept.

At the end of the movie, I understood even better his tears. We weep for all the victims. We weep for a Church that has been so often betrayed by those in whom it entrusts authority and power. We weep for all of us who are tempted to deny or give up or lash out.

Pope Francis is right: The Church is always in need of reform and purification. The abuse crisis will not have been in vain if it leads us to take more seriously our responsibilities as faithful Catholics.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s publisher.